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Northern Ireland Budget Bill - Second Reading (and remaining stages)

– in the House of Lords at 11:39 am on 31st October 2019.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank:

Moved by Lord Duncan of Springbank

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, sadly, this Bill is necessary. Although cross-party talks continue, the United Kingdom Government must take forward certain essential legislation to maintain the provision of public services. The legislation before the House today places the budget published in February 2019 on a legal footing and enables the Northern Ireland Civil Service to access the full funding for this financial year. Royal Assent is necessary to avoid the use of emergency powers under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

I shall now briefly turn to the Bill’s contents, which largely rehearse what the former Secretary of State set out to the House in a Written Ministerial Statement earlier this year. The Bill authorises Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending on 31 March 2020.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, I apologise—for the second time this week—for interrupting the Minister so early in his speech. However, I would be very grateful if he could give the House any information in respect of the costs presumably incurred under this Bill as a result of the compensation paid under the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill. Will that legislation go through the Commons as it will do through this House later today—speedily and without amendment, as I understand it? Does the Minister, or the Chief Whip, have any information on that, please?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I do not mind being interrupted by the noble Lord. The sum total of the expected costs under the historical institutional abuse Bill—this is an early estimate—is around £237 million, which will come from the Northern Ireland block grant. Money has been set aside and it will be met in full; of course, it may be higher than that depending upon circumstances. I believe that the historical institutional abuse Bill will pass through this House swiftly and, I sincerely hope, without amendment, today. I would like to believe that it could pass through the House of Commons in exactly the same fashion, but while I would like to make that so, I cannot guarantee it. But I hope to be able to report back with more information during the discussions we will have on the HIA Bill. That should help the House be aware of what we are facing.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

I thank the Minister very much for that response. I know, and the whole House knows, that he has been fully supportive of the Bill, and I am grateful for that. But in any intervening discussions that might be had with the Chief Whip here or the Chief Whip down there, can it be made clear that there is no reason at all why the Commons cannot do the same? The victims of historical institutional abuse will not understand if that does not happen.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I believe that the victims of historical abuse are watching us right now, not just in this House but in the other place. The noble Lord is correct in assessing what their view would be if that Bill fails to pass through both Houses. I will return to this during discussions in Committee on the historical institutional abuse Bill, to bring further matters to his and the House’s attention. If I may return now to the Bill before us, I shall talk briefly on its contents.

The Bill authorises Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending 31 March 2020. Clause 1 authorises the Northern Ireland Department of Finance to issue £5.3 billion out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. The sums of money granted to Northern Ireland departments and other bodies are set out in Schedule 1, which also sets out the purposes for which the funds may be used. The allocations in this budget reflect where the key pressures lie in Northern Ireland, building on discussions we have had with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the main parties in Northern Ireland and other stakeholders. Where possible, they reflect the previous Executive’s priorities.

Clause 2 authorises the temporary borrowing by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance of around £2.6 billion, to safeguard against the possibility of a temporary deficiency in the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. If used, this money will be repaid by 31 March 2020. Clause 3 authorises Northern Ireland departments and other specified public bodies to use resources amounting to some £6 billion in the year ending 31 March 2020 for the purposes specified in Schedule 2. Clause 4 sets limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources, which may be used in the current financial year. Since this Bill would normally be taken through the Assembly, Clause 5 includes a series of adaptations that ensure that, once approved by both Houses, it will be treated as though it were an Assembly budget Act.

Alongside the Bill, the Government have laid a Command Paper; a set of main estimates for the Northern Ireland departments and bodies covered by the budget Bill. These estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of resource allocation in much greater detail. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 11:45 am, 31st October 2019

My Lords, although this House is strongly averse to fast-tracking, there can be no doubt that this budget, essential to the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland, must be passed before the Dissolution of Parliament. I want to address just three matters to which the budget is relevant. All were raised during our important Northern Ireland debates at the start of the week, but without eliciting full responses from the Government.

The first is the renewable heating incentive scheme, which went so disastrously wrong. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed out on Monday, the report of the independent inquiry, chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin, was completed some months ago. When I last asked in a Written Question when the report would be published, I was told rather curtly to get in touch with the relevant Northern Ireland department. That has not proved a profitable line of inquiry. Are the Government able to provide some indication of when the report will appear, particularly now that the sorry episode has been described in a book by a leading Northern Ireland journalist, Sam McBride? It is a report which will provide vital lessons for the future.

The reforms that have recently been made to this unfortunate scheme have created hardship among a considerable number of participants who joined it in good faith in its original form. This House discussed at some length the need to provide relief to those enduring hardship at the time the Northern Ireland budget was last before the House. Widespread support for action was expressed across the House in an impassioned debate on 19 March. We were assured by my noble friend Lord Duncan that a hardship scheme would be constructed. He said that he would lay a written report before your Lordships’ House so that your Lordships could see what it would look like in practice. He added, perfectly fairly and reasonably:

“There is no point in pretending that this can be achieved in a fortnight”.—[Official Report, 19/3/19; col. 1408.]

Well, a number of fortnights have passed since then and it would be good to have news of progress.

Secondly, perhaps I may touch on the severe crisis in the health service with which Northern Ireland is afflicted. It is truly shocking that in Northern Ireland someone in need of treatment is 3,000 times more likely to have been on a waiting list for a year or more than his or her counterpart in England, as my noble friend Lord Empey told the House on Monday. Over the past year or so, my noble friend has put a number of suggestions for improvement to the Government, including the appointment on a purely temporary basis of a Minister of Health. We have been given no indication of a positive response to his imaginative ideas. It should be remembered that in Northern Ireland, unlike other parts of the country, there are no elected local councillors to assist in overseeing health services, since Stormont is both an upper tier of local government and a devolved legislature.

I come finally to welfare and the deeply troubling point raised on Monday by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, who cannot be in the House today. She drew our attention to the fact that arrangements that have been made to mitigate the effect of welfare reforms on the very poorest will expire in March next year unless action is taken swiftly to extend them. She pointed out that some 35,000 low-income families would be made worse off overnight unless the Government deal with the issue. It has now been agreed, I think, that a report will be laid before Parliament by 1 December under the 2019 Act. That report should contain the firm commitments that the noble Baroness and others are seeking.

I draw from these three issues one general conclusion, which I will put in the form of two questions. Should not this Parliament endeavour to devise more effective arrangements to safeguard the interests of our fellow country men and women in Northern Ireland in circumstances where their own democratic institutions are suspended for a protracted period? Should we perhaps seek, through constructive constitutional thought, to make provision in these circumstances for some form of halfway house between full devolution and full direct rule, to which so many people are ill disposed?

It would be rash to think that the prolonged impasse in Ulster’s affairs, which has not yet been resolved, will not recur after a better dispensation has finally been made. For wholly understandable reasons, we made devolution in Northern Ireland dependent on the willingness of parties with diametrically opposed constitutional objectives to share power together. I was struck by some words of my noble friend Lord Empey last Monday:

“As a Parliament, we have an obligation to protect our citizens which supersedes parties and all issues”.—[Official Report, 28/10/19; col. 822.]

These are words, I think, on which we can usefully reflect.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP 11:51 am, 31st October 2019

My Lords, it seems that we are again on the merry-go-round as we come to Northern Ireland. We on these Benches have said it umpteen times, but we want to keep repeating that we feel the best way forward is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be making these decisions. Alas, there is no prospect of the Assembly sitting any time soon. There was an honest attempt to have the Assembly recalled just over a week ago, but that attempt was also squandered because Sinn Féin, again, stayed away and was not prepared to participate.

The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, made reference to the RHI, which was allegedly the reason that the Assembly was brought down, but those of us who live in Northern Ireland know perfectly well that that was not the reason; it was the excuse. A judge-led inquiry was established, which has now completed its report and its findings will be made public very soon, we hope. Therefore, if the RHI had been the reason, the inquiry would remove all the alleged obstacles to the return of devolution, but those of us who sit on these Benches and who live in Northern Ireland are not as naive as that. We know that the prospects of the Northern Ireland Assembly returning any time soon are very remote. Indeed, I suspect that we will be going through the same process again this time next year, so the Government have some responsibility to bring energy and urgency to the whole task of restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. I accept that you can take a horse to the water but you cannot make him drink. That is the situation that we find ourselves in today.

What we should be debating and discussing today are the issues that affect people’s everyday lives. Our health service is in dire straits. Why is no urgency applied to look at those who need urgent health services? Why are they ignored? Our education system is in urgent need of attention. Again, it is ignored. Our infrastructure in Northern Ireland is creaking at the hinges.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

Does my noble friend agree that there was no hesitancy in this House in legislating concerning same-sex marriages or divorce over the heads of the people, while a large portion of the people of Northern Ireland did not desire such legislation to be passed? It was raced through this House, yet people are allowed to die and there is no haste for legislation or for a Minister or anyone else to take responsibility for doing something to allow them to live rather than die. As for the RHI, is it not time that we had the fulfilment of the promise made by the Minister and mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for a chairman to be appointed to look at those enduring hardship through no fault of their own?

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

I thank my noble friend for making those very succinct points and I agree entirely with him. He has raised the hardship cases with the Minister before, and we need the Minister to come back on this. Perhaps this will be the day we hear a reply from him on those pressing issues. What about the hardship cases? I think he gave a clear understanding that each one would be looked at individually, that this would not just be taken in a bland way, that a chairman would be appointed, a report would be forthcoming and the Minister would come back and respond to it.

My noble friend mentions the issues that were steamed through; namely, the redefinition of marriage and abortion. Those were two of Sinn Féin’s demands—of course, the other one is the Irish language Act. It seems to me that it has moved far past that: another string of demands will surface and be announced soon, and those will have to be delivered if we want a return to Stormont. Really, the people of Northern Ireland deserve to be governed and no single party should be allowed to hold all the people to ransom, including some who actually support it and who fail to understand why they cannot have a health service that functions properly, an education system that is up to the demands of the 21st century, and an infrastructure. All these will not hurt anybody but will enhance their lives, so can the Minister today give us any assurance? I know where we are in the timetable of things. We are in the mouth of another election; that will take us on through to next year before we can get anything done, and then we will rattle on through Easter and on through the Summer Recess, and on and on it goes. There always seems to be some reason why Northern Ireland cannot be governed like any other region of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Conservative

The noble Lord will be aware that one of the reasons that Governments are reluctant to take decision-making powers is the reaction of nationalist parties within Northern Ireland. However, does he share my assessment that if the Government did take steps in this direction there would be a gigantic sense of relief across the whole community that decisions were actually being taken at long last?

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

I could not agree more with the noble Lord, Lord Caine. It seems to me that the Government will not do anything that will ruffle the feathers of Sinn Féin—they cannot disturb it. We have had this constant threat, and the noble Lord, Lord Caine, has said it: if some decisions were made of importance to people in their everyday lives, there would be a sigh of relief across the whole of Northern Ireland, irrespective of what community background they might come from. We have to get to the stage where Sinn Féin can no longer dictate the pace.

I know, and I have heard it in this House, that the Belfast agreement is sacrosanct; it is the holy grail and cannot be touched. Let me say to your Lordships’ House that the Belfast agreement has had a coach and horses driven through it and it is time that the Government suspended it and took over temporarily. I want the Northern Ireland Assembly there, I served as a Minister there on two occasions, I served in the Assembly for some 18 years, I see the merits of it and the positives that can come out of it, and it is time that it was restored. But please, do not allow our having to move at the pace of the slowest in Northern Ireland to continue infinitely. Others are being penalised here when they should be allowed to get on with their lives. Government should be supplying the necessary governance to allow that to happen.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 11:59 am, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I think that all of us, including the Minister, will agree that this is a very inadequate substitute for proper debate and decision-making by the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. However, this is a necessary Bill that has to pass before the dissolution of Parliament if services are to be maintained in the Province.

My understanding is that this will maintain spending at the pre-agreed level. When the former Secretary of State Karen Bradley initiated the beginnings of this year’s budget, she said that there was a real increase in funding for health, yet the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has on many occasions—although not today—given us quite a lot of detail on the waiting lists, shortfalls and problems in the health service. Can the Minister explain how that is consistent with the assurances of the previous Secretary of State that the resources have been increased—or is it just that the increase is not adequate to the challenge?

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, has already sought assurance, which the Minister has given, on funding for the Bill that we hope to get through later this afternoon. Assuming it all goes through, we hope that it will enable interim payments to be made in very short order.

The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, mentioned the RHI situation. There are two issues here: one is the hardship which Mr Buglass was appointed to try to address—it would be interesting to know when he will be able actually to take action—and the other is the lack of a report. There is some suggestion that both of these things should be happening together, because clearly there must be some explanation of who is to blame and why it happened. At the same time, people facing financial crisis need assistance now, not at some time in the indefinite future.

We are rushing this through because we are on the verge of a general election. It is also taking place in Northern Ireland, and it may well be interesting to see whether it will reflect any indication of a change of mood there. I am certain that in hustings across the Province many of the questions that we have returned to time and again will be on the lips of the voters in Northern Ireland, who will be challenging all their politicians on why they are in this situation.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, knows that the prospect of direct rule has very serious implications. He says that, as far as he sees it, the Northern Ireland agreement has had a coach and horses driven through it, and it is certainly the view of these Benches that the agreement which the Prime Minister claims to be a new deal—it is actually the original deal that the EU offered and Theresa May rejected—is totally incompatible with the Good Friday agreement. The election may well flush that out, both in the Province and across the rest of the UK.

Perhaps the elephant in the room, which I think the Explanatory Notes and the Library Note say has nothing to do with this Bill, is Brexit. Although technically it has nothing to do with it, there are clearly serious implications for Northern Ireland if anything similar to this deal goes through—which could happen within the timeframe of the money that we are currently voting. My only question to the Minister is: if it becomes apparent that there are significant costs borne by the public purse or adding to public pressure in Northern Ireland as a result of any decisions that may be taken relating to Brexit, will there be a recognition that some additional measures may be required? It would be not just adding insult to injury but putting pressure on an already overpressured budget to try to cover contingencies which, by definition, cannot be fully anticipated.

That said, we all recognise that the simple logic is that, if we did not comply with the accelerated passage of the Bill, Northern Ireland would be left with no funds whatever, which of course would be totally unacceptable. The reality is that, as long as there is no Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, this House—rather more than the other House, I have to say—will spend more and more time debating more and more aspects of policy issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland and may well have to make ad hoc decisions again and again, as we have done.

I understand the argument of the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, that we have enacted certain measures and not others. That, I suppose, is the nature of where we are in reality. It is not a satisfactory scenario, but my guess is that other issues, some of which may not be quite so contentious, will eventually reach such a critical situation that it will not be possible to make decisions without the intervention of UK Ministers. However, we are not there yet and, in the meantime, it is absolutely imperative that we get the Bill passed.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 12:05 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, there is no question that this process is any substitute for proper scrutiny. In normal circumstances, this budget would have gone to departmental committees of Stormont, it would have been scrutinised, and Assembly Members would have made decisions based on their priorities and what they felt was in the best interests of their constituents. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, has just said, there is no alternative to dealing with it in this way today. However, a number of things need to be highlighted.

First, on the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, both today and yesterday, I can say to him that, after the proceedings here I took myself down to the other place. It was clear, during a Statement made by the Leader of the other place to the Commons, that Members were getting information from the Front Bench that was out of date; it had been superseded by the proceedings in here that had not been transmitted to the Members there. There was overwhelming support in the other place for dealing with the Bill. I got the impression that the Leader of the House had listened to Members there and that perhaps something could be done. If it is not done, it will be the greatest kick in the teeth that this Parliament could possibly deliver to a group of victims. I sincerely hope that we will be able to dispatch the Bill later today and get it down to the other place for its deliberations.

My noble friend Lord Lexden raised a number of issues in his contribution. It goes back to the debate earlier this year when we were looking at the question of the RHI and the scheme that was to be in place. The Minister will be aware that I moved amendments, which I withdrew only on the basis of the undertakings that he gave to the House at that stage. That centred around the report and the scheme that was to be put in place to provide compensation for those who had in good faith availed themselves of the scheme but found themselves penalised effectively at the end of the process by having made economic decisions based on an anticipated income. They had sought loans from banks to do other things on the basis of that, and then discovered that their whole economic and business plans were completely frustrated when the scheme was arbitrarily changed part-way through.

The Minister will also have to be aware that similar schemes have now been introduced in the Republic of Ireland, and the scheme has gone on here in Britain unabated.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I remind the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that he has a very authoritative voice on this subject, but he is effectively speaking in a gap which we have created for him, so perhaps he could draw his remarks to a swift conclusion.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

I will just say to the Minister, regarding the mitigation that was raised, that I put an amendment into the Act which required a report to be made by 1 December. Given that Parliament will not be sitting on 1 December, can the Minister tell us when that report will be published and what effect the gap of the election will have in regard to the process of ensuring that those mitigation measures are put in place? Otherwise, very significant hardship will be inflicted on many thousands of people. I would be grateful if the Minister could do that in his response.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 12:09 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, obviously, the Opposition will support the Bill, albeit reluctantly, because we know why it is in front of us and why it is being dealt with so swiftly. I regret that we have to do this—I think the whole House does—but without it, there would be no money and so we must pass it today, as the House of Commons did yesterday.

Members of your Lordships’ House raised a number of individual issues which I am sure the Minister will address in his wind-up speech. The mitigation of welfare reforms was raised extensively yesterday in the other place, as it has been by my noble friend Lady Lister in this House. We would be grateful for the Minister’s views on something that affects some 35,000 people in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Empey, both raised the issue of the RHI. We look forward to the Minister’s comment on that difficult issue. My noble friend Lord Hain raised the issue of progress on the historical institutional abuse Bill. We look forward to the Minister’s comments, and later this afternoon we will have a bit more detail on that.

One issue mentioned yesterday in the other place which has not been touched on today is that of Barnett consequentials. As the Minister knows, if, during the course of a year, the Government decide to spend money which they had not planned to spend, the devolved Administrations get a proportion of that and it is up to the Administrations themselves to decide how to distribute that money. As there are no Ministers, it cannot be distributed. What has happened to that money and what plans are there to deal with Barnett consequentials?

There is also the absence of proper scrutiny of billions of pounds worth of expenditure in Northern Ireland. We will have spent half an hour on it, and the other place spent about an hour. An hour and a half to deal with the expenditure of billions of pounds is not good enough. The reason for all this, as every Member who has spoken has said, is that there is no Assembly or Executive in Belfast. There were pleas of a sort today for direct rule. That would be an answer, but it would be an inadequate one because, as I have said many times in this Chamber, it is easy to get into direct rule but very difficult to get out of it.

What we have now is a halfway house: semi-direct rule via remote control from London, with no Ministers with direct control over the Northern Ireland Civil Service or decision-making, but a sort of control here in Westminster. That is not good enough and it cannot carry on. Northern Ireland is the only part of our country which is inadequately governed because of what has happened. In the next 10 or 15 minutes, we will consider the statutory instrument regarding further progress in the talks. We must accept the Bill: we have no option but to agree it, but, as I said in my introduction, we do so reluctantly.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 12:13 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I welcome the support from across the House for the Bill. However, I have no wish to be standing here moving it and I recognise that your Lordships have no wish to be sitting here listening to me doing so. I fully appreciate that this will not be possible again.

The Executive formation statutory instrument that we shall consider shortly hereafter reminds us that there is a period until 13 January for the formation of an Executive. If we are unable to do that, I think that this House and the other place will be very reluctant to extend the period further. That will bring us into new territory in terms of what needs to happen next. I should have thought that, at that stage, there will then be an election in Northern Ireland. A lot will depend on its outcome: if an Executive can be formed, we are out of a hole; if it cannot, we are in a hole. Noble Lords here recognise what direct rule would look like and why it is not a preference that we wish to explore. None the less, we are discussing a budget, and certain questions were asked regarding both the budget and more broadly. I will try to answer them in turn.

Touching on comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, both today and in the past, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, asked whether there has been an increase in funding for the health service. There has been an increase of 3.8% in that funding. However, as the noble Lord conceded, the reality is that that amount of money has not been adequate to address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, which require more than a 3.8% increase in funding. Although we have put a further £17 million into an in-year monitoring exercise, that too is inadequate to address these significant problems. Only an incoming Executive, or government by other means, can truly address these issues. The shocking statistic presented yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and echoed again today by other noble Lords, is chilling to consider. That alone should be reason enough for the parties in Northern Ireland to give due consideration to expediting their ability to get that Executive back up and running—I hope that it is. None the less, this budget must go forward.

I want briefly to touch on the renewable heating incentive. In March, I made statements in the light of a heated but sensible debate in this place about the need for independent assessment of the hardship in Northern Ireland as a consequence of the subsequent and serious failures in developing a workable approach to RHI. I made a number of commitments then. I am reminded of the quotation from the Duke of Wellington when he chaired his first Cabinet meeting. He said that he gave them the orders and discovered that they wanted to discuss them. I said very clearly what I felt was appropriate for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to move forward with, but I cannot order the Northern Ireland Civil Service to move forward on that basis. A protracted discussion then ensued on how to move this issue forward. Steps have been taken, some of which I will rehearse now, but I commit to writing to my noble friend Lord Lexden and placing in the Library a full and detailed assessment of this issue by tomorrow. I will share that assessment, because noble Lords deserve it and should have had it before now.

Let me put on record where we are on this approach. The responsible department in Northern Ireland held a call for evidence between 17 June and 10 July to examine the issues that should be brought forward for discussion. It published the responses to the consultation on 10 October. It has appointed an independent energy consultant by the name of, I think, Andrew Buglass. His responsibility will be to develop relevant definitions of “hardship” and engage directly with the participants, so that each case will be examined to ensure that we have that information. We expect that that will be responded to before the end of the year.

I will put all this in a detailed response to my noble friend Lord Lexden, to make sure that he has the information. I put on record an apology for this not happening beforehand—he deserved it before now. I should have informed the House of the steps being taken before the debate, rather than doing so now. I hope that noble Lords will accept the apology in the manner in which it is given.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

Can the Minister tell the House whether there is any clarity on the differential between the tariff proposed for Northern Ireland and the tariffs in England and the Republic of Ireland?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I believe that there is clarity there. I have answered that question before but, again, for the benefit of all, I will make sure that that information is included in my answer to ensure that there is an appreciation of how the tariff in Northern Ireland sits alongside tariffs in the rest of the British Isles, so that it can be understood. The noble Lord will recall that when we discussed this issue, we looked at different elements which created the need for differential tariffs for particular time periods and baselines. Rather than explaining this at greater length, I will put it in the response that I will lodge in the Library tomorrow.

Yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about welfare and I believe that I gave a positive response. She has subsequently written to me and I will respond in a similarly positive manner. I do not wish to see a situation develop in Northern Ireland where those who are experiencing these challenges and facing potential hardship suffer in any way—I repeat, in any way—as a consequence of the absence of an Executive. I will happily share that letter with noble Lords. I will put a copy in the Library, so that they can see what I believe we should be doing to ensure not only that we address this matter expeditiously but that the people of Northern Ireland can appreciate that it will be done, so they will not face the hardship which might indeed have been on the horizon had we not been able to move forward in this regard.

On the role of an incoming Executive, it is not going to be easy for them because in truth, a number of the bigger problems—not least in the health service and education—stem from before the collapse of the previous Executive; they did not start with the collapse of this one. There are long-standing issues which have not been addressed for a range of reasons, and there will be a serious challenge for any incoming Executive or whomsoever has to administer governance in Northern Ireland. For obvious reasons, I hope that it is an incoming Executive, but I am aware that there is only so long that this can continue. I have made a number of statements about this in the past and events have made a liar of me. I do not wish to repeat those statements, but I shall repeat a simple one: the people of Northern Ireland deserve much better than they have got, and we have to move forward in a sensible manner.

The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, asked why certain issues have been taken forward in this place and not others. The only thing I would note is that if we end up with direct rule, I am afraid that this House and the other place will decide which issues are going to be taken forward and in what order. I do not believe that that is the right way forward at all, and it may well be that they do not marry up with the situation in Northern Ireland, even though I would wish it to be so. That is a portent and a warning.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, raised the question of the Barnett consequentials. I do not have the exact answer but I will find out and report back to the noble Lord if he will allow me to do so.

If I have failed to address any particular issue, I will happily write to noble Lords.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Can my noble friend give the House any information about the publication of the independent report on the inquiry?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My noble friend has reminded me of something that I could not find in my written notes. I cannot give an exact date, but he will be aware that we published our own report on that. I shall use the word loosely, but I hope that its publication is imminent. I think it has reached the stage where it can be published and that now, it is just a question of when. The moment I am aware of the publication date, I will ensure that noble Lords are given it so that they are aware of it. I do not want to keep it a secret; it is just that I do not have the information.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

Perhaps the noble Lord would follow up on our previous exchange, and I apologise to noble Lords for briefly pursuing this. It is my understanding, based on recent discussions I have had at the Bar of the House with Members of Parliament, including MPs from Northern Ireland, that business managers in the Commons are telling them that there is no time to take the remaining stages of the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill. If that is the case, perhaps I may put two things on the record. First, that is not right. To use the excuse of electing the Speaker on Monday as a reason not to take through the Bill is unacceptable. If it means MPs sitting for a few hours more on Monday, they must do so in order in to protect the victims of historical institutional abuse because they have suffered horrendously.

The other procedural option—I have checked this, and I am a former Leader of the Commons—is that a First Reading in the Commons could take place. It could then go into the wash-up period. I have been told for a fact by Members of the Labour Opposition that they will support it, as will the DUP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, the Liberal Democrats and, I am sure, the SNP, so it could receive Royal Assent. The information that MPs have been given that there is no time for Royal Assent is nonsense. Royal Assent could be given at any time before Dissolution formally takes place. I am sorry to burden the House with this, but it is important to put it on the record.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The noble Lord brings information to the House that I am not privy to. I have not had a chance to speak with business managers in the other place. I will be disappointed if his recitation of the details is correct, but I can say only that I do not know the answer because I have not had an opportunity to find out. We will return to that Bill later on this afternoon, when I will have more information. At that point, time having allowed me to have the necessary discussions with the other place, I will be in a better position, I hope, to answer the very questions that he raised.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

The Minister will accept that, if what the noble Lord was told by the other House is put into operation, that will be totally unacceptable to the people of Northern Ireland and to both Houses. I listened to the debate in the other House following a question to the Prime Minister and I have read the debates in this House on the issue, and there is unanimity on getting this matter resolved. Where there is a will, there is always a way. If there is not a way to push this through, it is because somewhere in the system, whether in the other House or within the Government, it seems there is not the will.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I do not doubt the resolve of this House in any manner, nor do I doubt the resolve of the cross-party approach to this matter. That was made very clear yesterday and in the exchanges thus far in this debate, and I expect it will be made clear in the debate to follow. On that basis, all I can say is that I will go away, find out more and bring back to noble Lords information that I hope will help everyone to appreciate what is going on.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour

The Opposition is entirely behind my noble friend on this, but could the Minister look at the point that he made about the wash-up? As long as we pass the Bill later and First Reading is taken in the other place—nothing happens; it is simply received—it could go into the wash-up and be given Royal Assent. That is the specific thing that we are asking the Minister to do between now and 4.30 pm.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I am happy to take on that commission from the noble Lord. I will report back on the question of the wash-up and provide any information that I have at that point.

Returning very briefly to the Bill before us, I beg to move.

Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.